My uncle, Gene Else, gave me invaluable advice about coaching. He always said, “Great players make great coaches, but great coaches can’t make great players.” The former Doane College men’s coach, my Uncle Gene also told me to go where I had a chance to win. All of it is solid advice that I followed to the letter.
My first head coaching job was at Wilber-Clatonia High School, a small school in Southeast Nebraska. The glory days in sports had not appeared at the high school for many years. Clatonia had a state championship boys’ team in 1958. Even my appearance on the scene as a 155 offensive tackle and a 5-10 post player that the coaches listed at 6-2 couldn’t provide much for winning in the mid 1960’s.
However, things were about to change. I was in my sixth year of public school teaching in 1979. I was enjoying a nice spring day on a bench outside the post office in Clatonia. My dad had been the postmaster in Clatonia since shortly after he got home from World War II in the mid to late 1940’s. A very tall, sturdy looking girl came out of the local tavern and got in a car with her mom. I asked dad who that was and he said, “That’s Oren Miller’s daughter, Angie, and she’s only an eighth grader.”
Oren had led that Clatonia team in 1958 to a state championship and his first born looked like a can’t-miss athlete. Two weeks later, I was the head coach of the girls’ basketball team at Wilber-Clatonia. Nine months later, we were district champions. Great players make great coaches.
The 1979-1980 season marked the first winning season in school history. It also marked the point when expectations shot through the roof for the Wolverine girls’ basketball team. During the next two years, we had good seasons, but no state tournament appearances. It was time for the superintendent to have a little talk with his head coach.
My boss explained to me that if my 1982-1983 team did not make it to the state tournament, the school board would removed me from my job. Thankfully, not only did we make it to state, but went on to win 27 straight times and defeat Omaha Cathedral in the championship game by 23 points.
Despite losing my top four scorers, including two first-team all-state players, I felt my job was safe. That was a foolish thought. The superintendent called me in for another chat. He asked how he thought the team would be. I turned it around and asked him what he thought. The boss told me if we went .500, it would be a great season. However, he added, “If you don’t make the state tournament, we’ll let you go.” It was my first lesson on great expectations.
The Wolverines did make the state tournament the next season, going 19-5. I also got out of town before I could have another chat with the superintendent. I took a job at Doane College, which was in serious need of a reclamation project. I was the schools first full-time head coach. The women’s basketball program’s previous history was not one of success.
Expectations were low, until my fourth year, we won 24 games and followed it up with a 30 win season the next year. I didn’t have a superintendent to deal with but there were a whole lot of expectations. Now, if we didn’t make the national tournament, the season was lost.
Doane made the final four in three consecutive seasons. The first year was in the small town of Angola, Indiana. My administration was so excited they flew everyone down for the semifinal game. We lost.
It was right back to the final four the next year after upsetting Briar Cliff, a 37–0 team. There was excitement, but the president held off flying to Angola until the championship game. Too bad we didn’t make it that far.
Doane College won 20 or more games 12 years in a row. The sad part is the most over-achieving team and the year I probably did my best coaching job went virtually unnoticed. That team began the year 1 – 4 with losses by 15, 20 and 42 points and all AT HOME. It was a scrappy bunch, though, and they fought back to win 21 games. A couple of the games were against MIAA opponents. Washburn had been ranked number one just before we beat them in Crete. Our win over Missouri Western was their only lost until the post season.
I loved that team. They weren’t real tall and they weren’t real fast, but they were real tough to beat. We ended a long conference winning streak of Hastings College and came within one game of the national tournament. However, the fans of Doane College basketball didn’t pay much attention. Great expectations raise its ugly head once again.
I fear that the same thing might happen to this year’s Northwest team. We graduated four kids, including three All-MIAA players. You look at our team during pre-season warm-ups and it will be a very different look. The 29-5 team is gone, but I still like what I see.
I have no idea how things will go this year. Last year, we had a pretty soft pre-conference schedule. It allowed Gentry Dietz to rejoin the team at Christmas and we still had a great record in progress. It’s different this year. Starting November 11, we play UMKC, a NCAA I team and Northeastern State (OK), the number one seed from our region a year ago. Northeastern State didn’t graduate a player and we play both on the road.
Last year, we played all our non-conference games at home. This year we play two of the seven non-conference games at home. Besides that, we open the MIAA schedule with Washburn, Emporia, and Pittsburg State, all teams pre-seasoned picked ahead of the Bearcats.
I’m not singing the blues, but trying to preach patience for our players and fans. It’s great to have expectations, but the ability to be realist is important in goal setting.
I love this year’s team. Alexis and Candace Boeh, twin sisters and post players, came back from the summer in the best shape of their careers. Abby Henry, a second team All-MIAA point guard and Shelly Martin, our record setting three point and free throw shooter, are leading the team with a steady hand.
Ashley Thayer and Meridee Scott are both playing the best basketball of their careers as they hope to significantly increase their playing time. Tara Roach, last year’s spark plug off the bench, is trying to steal a starting slot.
The freshmen class has made waves. Annie Mathews reminds the coaches of Mandy Schumaker, the post who helped Northwest to two straight MIAA appearances. The similarity begins with her toughness. Ashleigh Nelson has turned some heads with her hard play and three point shooting ability. Maggie Marnin, the 6-3 post player from a small Iowa high school, had a set-back with a sprained ankle but it’s on the mend. Likewise, Courtney Jensen has experienced breathing problems, but her shooting is causing people to notice.
Denise McEnaney from nearby Tarkio has shown great recovery from an ACL tear her senior year of high school. Poor Emily Hauder can’t catch a break. Emily has played some great basketball for the Bearcats. However, last season was cut short by illness and now she’s out of action until Thanksgiving with a broken collar bone.
I think this team can accomplish a lot this season. The real key isn’t if they win the majority of their preseason games, but if they still anxious to strap it up in March, when many basketball players are ready for spring break. I love this team. Now if great expectations don’t turn into a giant monkey on our backs, let the fun begin.